With the ocean’s roar in front of us and the chirping of cicadas behind us, my daughter and I sat in our beach chairs watching the strollers, shell collectors, and frolicking children. We noted an increased number of dogs on the beach and wondered about their possible discomfort. It was sweltering.
Weren’t the dogs hot? Surely, they were. Two big, brown dogs walked by, their leashes tightly held by a man. Although the canines were walking rather briskly, their long pink tongues were hanging out, and we could see that they were panting.
“You know those dogs have got to be hot as heck with all that hair,” Elizabeth said.
“I was just thinking the same thing. They look like Alaskan Huskies better equipped to handle an Iditarod race than a walk on a Southern beach.”
“Those are Huskies? They look more like German Shepherds to me.”
“I don’t know. All I know is that they aren’ t poodles or Chihuahuas. I’ll look it up in my dog book when I get home.”
“You have a dog book? Seriously?”
“Sure do. I bought it at Good Will after reading that writers should be as specific as possible.”
This morning, I remembered our conversation and tried to match the dogs with some photographs in the dog breed book.
I couldn’t decide. And in this case, it doesn’t really matter. I used the dogs as a way to introduce something I learned when reading Pat Conroy’s My Reading Life. When he was a high school student, Conroy and his English teacher visited South Carolina’s Poet Laureate, Archibald Rutledge, who suggested that Conroy make the close observation of nature part of his life’s work.
Mr. Rutledge encouraged the teen to learn the names of things and told him specifics would prove fruitful to the validity of a narrative. “A Cherokee rose, not just a rose. A swallowtail butterfly, not just a butterfly. That kind of thing,” he said. “Get the details right. Always the details.” Conroy, Pat. My Reading Life (p. 46). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
A couple of weeks after reading of the exchange between Conroy and Rutledge, someone in my writing critique group wrote, “I’d like to know more about this White Ibis” on my submission. That was her tactful way of telling me I needed to be more specific. Readers need a visual. Big dog, butterfly, and white bird aren’t enough.
A quick Google search taught me more than I needed for my short article, and I described the White Ibis as a medium-sized bird with white plumage, a reddish-orange down-curved bill, and long legs. I also mentioned that among other things, small aquatic prey, such as insects and small fishes, are dietary staples. And that’s it. The nonfiction piece wasn’t about birds and their appearance, habitats, and diet but rather a visit to an aviary.
Earlier this week, I read Eudora Welty’s “Listening” and was reminded once again of the importance of getting the facts right. Welty writes of her interest in and knowledge of the moon, stars, sun, solar system, and constellations—everything in the “velvety black sky.” But she didn’t know the moon didn’t come up in the west until Herschel Brickell, a literary critic, told her she’d misplaced it in a story.
“Always be sure you get your moon in the right part of the sky,” he said.
Curious after reading of Welty’s awakening, I wanted to know exactly about moonrise and moonset. It’s more scientific than I can comprehend, so I’m sticking to the simple explanation from May, 2009 edition of the Farmers’ Almanac.
“The Moon, more often than not, rises in the east and sets in the west; however, depending on the phase of the Moon and the time of the year, the rising might actually occur in the east-northeast or east-southeast, and the setting might take place in the west-northwest or west-southwest.”
“When the Moon is full, it rises close to due east and sets close to due west on those dates nearest the Vernal and Fall Equinoxes.”
Good to know.
Be specific. Draw a picture for the reader. And get the details right.